Sunday, October 14, 2007

Entertainment: Romance, protest and hope - across the universe

For many, the music of the Beatles was the soundtrack for the turbulent 1960s. In her new film musical set in that decade, award-winning director Julie Taymor uses almost three dozen of those songs to tell a story of romance, protest and hope. Alan Silverman spoke with the filmmaker for this look at "Across The Universe"

His story begins in Liverpool: a lad named Jude who sets out for America, quitting his job at the shipyard and leaving his girlfriend behind. What Jude doesn't know is that his true love awaits him across the Atlantic: a vivacious young Yankee named Lucy.

But it is the tumultuous '60s with violence punctuating the struggle for civil rights at home while, in a far-off country, young men die on the battlefields of an escalating war.

Director Julie Taymor chose 33 Beatles songs for "Across The Universe." With all due respect to purists, Taymor knew the iconic music had to be re-interpreted and performed by her cast. "How can you use the Beatles' performances? It is impossible. What are you going to do, have these guys lip-syncing the Beatles? No, that is not this movie. What you have to really respect is that John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison, with a little help from Ringo Starr, were great songwriters. That means their songs can be interpreted by many performers. To limit it to being the Beatles is a mistake. Those are perfect performances, but that doesn't mean those songs can't be re-interpreted like all of Mozart or Sondheim have different singers singers singing great artist's work," she says.

There are some cameos including rock stalwart Joe Cocker's take on "Come Together" and Irish pop star Bono does "I Am The Walrus" as a turned-on, tuned-out drug guru.

But most of the music is by the fresh-faced young people playing the main characters. Evan Rachel Wood as lovestruck young Lucy and English newcomer Jim Sturgess is wistful Jude.

Director Taymor says their youth and energy reflects the more innocent time in which the film is set. "Having these young people means you are going to have fresh faces. They are not jaded in any way. We also had to do a month and a half of rehearsal and pre-recording, so they got together for what they called 'Beatles Camp.' The thing is they bonded. They came together as a group from very disparate places and they were what you see in that film. The charisma and the chemistry is what you see in the movie," she says.

It also may come as a revelation that songs - especially the early Beatles love songs - originally performed by men work really well when sung by women; and Taymor says not a word had to be changed. "Do you think any guy right now would sing 'Hold Me Tight' or 'It won't be long, yeah, yeah, yeah?' The Beatles at that time were channelling 15-year-old girls. That's why the girls were going nuts: because they sang their feelings," she says.

While it is a love story at heart, "Across The Universe" also deals with social unrest and political upheaval; and Taymor says other Beatles songs fit those themes well. "I and the writers and all of the kids in the movie were very aware that this is not a nostalgic period piece ...that this is as important and contemporary today. I think that their songs, which were simple and love songs - 'Hold Me Tight' and all of those - going right through their psychedelic and druggy period were fabulously moving and entertaining, but they also were social statements," she says.

"Across The Universe" features Joe Anderson as Maxwell (who, yes, has a silver hammer); Dana Fuchs belts out like Janis Joplin as sexy Sadie; and Martin Luther McCoy sings like Marvin Gaye and does Jimi Hendrix guitar riffs as Jo-Jo. Salma Hayek and Eddie Izzard also have cameos; and several of the wide-screen production numbers include director Julie Taymor's signature over-sized puppets.

By Alan Silverman Hollywood14 October 2007
Published with the permission of Voice of America